A murder at the mall

It happened so quickly that no one had any time to react. One moment the Velletis were a perfectly happy family of four, and the next Rajesh Velleti was lying in a pool of his own blood with two stab wounds in his back and his throat slit open. His wife and children knelt before him crying loudly for help. But Rajesh was dead even before the first cry for help left Tanya’s lips. A kind soul tried to move the kids away from the sight of their dead father, but Tanya refused to let go of her children. So there they sat, a gruesome pantomime – a young family kneeling next to their dead husband and father.

***

Shailaja Mahatre stood in front of the mirror, observing her reflection. Her weighing scale told her she had put on a kilo of weight. Fortunately it didn’t show. She still looked and felt fit. The khaki brown police shirt fit her snuggly, like it always did, and her trousers did not show any folding at the belt.

“Not bad for a 32-year-old”, she told her reflection as she placed her cap on her head and went out to meet Tanya Velleti.

The police station was a simple affair, as most police stations are. It wasn’t designed to make its occupants feel comfortable – quite the opposite. In her wooden chair, in front of the investigating officer’s desk, Tanya decidedly felt uncomfortable. From where she sat, she could see a steady stream of police officers moving back and forth outside the door of the room, many of them escorting seedy looking men and women. She wondered where they were being taken. She had heard horror stories of what happened in investigation cells and felt a shiver go down her spine.

“Good afternoon Tanya”, Shailaja greeted her pleasantly.

“Good afternoon, inspector”, she replied.

“Sorry I had to call you in here, but there were a few things I needed cleared up and since I have all my case notes here, I thought it would be best if we discussed it here.”

“Not a problem. Do you have any leads?”

“I’ll be honest with you. We are at a dead end. In fact we may have to wind down this investigation in a couple of days, the way it is going.”

“No. Please! You have to find Rajesh’s murderer. I want to know why he died. I have to know.”

“I know how you feel. But winding down the investigation does not mean closing the investigation. The case will remain open so if any new leads come up, we will investigate.”

Tanya looked crestfallen, defeated.

“So, let’s just go over a few things once more, shall we? We just may catch something we missed the first time.”

Tanya nodded.

Shailaja studied the woman in front of her without making it too obvious. The first time she had met the petite woman, she had almost outright dismissed the chance that she was involved in the murder. For one thing, women who wanted to kill a family member usually resorted to poisoning them. It was so much easier and much less messy. A brutal murder by a woman was almost unheard of, though not impossible. It was always easy for a woman to poison a close family member because they were the ones who prepared the food in the house. Amazing how people who ill-treat their women don’t realize the danger they were exposing themselves to by allowing the woman to cook and serve their food.

Tanya stood at about 5’4”. Short, even for an Indian woman. She obviously took great care in her dress. In the three months, since the murder, Shailaja had never once seen the grieving widow misdressed. Her accessories always matched her clothes. Her choice of clothes were perfect for her body type – petite but curvy. It was this that first planted the idea in Shailaja’s head that maybe Tanya wasn’t all that innocent. She had pursued that line of the investigation quietly and found nothing to implicate the young woman in the murder of her husband.

Rajesh and Tanya were as normal a couple as you could get. All their friends drew a picture of a couple who were happy and contented. Rajesh’s parents obviously loved and doted on their daughter-in-law. The kids were happy kids. None of the neighbours recollected any public fights between the couple. While Rajesh did have a few women friends that he was close to and maybe even flirted with, it didn’t seem like Tanya was unduly worried or ever suspected that her husband had strayed.

In short, there was no reason to suspect Tanya at all. But somehow, Shailaja couldn’t let go of the niggling feeling that Tanya had something to do with the murder.

“Tanya, on the day of the murder, after Rajesh was taken for the autopsy, you were the one who brought the fact that Rajesh had donated his body for organ harvesting, is it not?”

“Yes. It was something he felt passionate about. Like I already told you, he was an idealist. He truly felt that each one of us could make a difference in this world, if we all just did our little bit.”

The tears were just beneath the surface. It was easy to see that the woman was at breaking point. “Or a damned good actress”, Shailaja thought.

“He felt that all the world’s problems could be solved if each of us took responsibility instead of waiting for some messiah to come and solve them for us.”

Her story, so far, was consistent with the picture Shailaja had been able to come up with of Rajesh. Over the past months, she had caught herself wondering why such a man had met such a brutal death.

“We were the first people in our colony to have water harvesting put in. So also solar panels for electricity. He was passionate about such things.”

The tears began to flow and she kept sniffing into a handkerchief.

“I know all that. In fact, the more I know about your husband, the more I find myself wanting to catch his murderer. He didn’t deserve to die like this.”

Tanya nodded into the handkerchief.

“I guess it helps to know that he or at least his organs live on through 6 other people”, Shailaja prompted her.

“I thought that way too, when he first got us all enrolled into the donor program. But dispelled that. He considered death to be finite. It was the end of life. He would tell me that we should take pleasure in just that fact that many lives would be returned by our actions. But to believe that we lived on in those people is foolishness. He always maintained that who we are dies with us.”

“But still, it must have been difficult to think of donating his organs at that point.”

“I guess it may seem difficult that in that moment of grief I thought of pointing out that he was a donor. I thought of that myself a lot of times. But he was always prepared for death. We spoke about death a lot. At least, he did. He wanted to make sure he was never buried and that his body was not wasted. So whenever the subject came up, he would remind me that I was supposed to donate every organ that could be taken from him. Those conversations all came flooding back as I sat outside the autopsy room.”

She looked into Shailaja’s eyes – straight into them. Then she took the elephant in the room by its trunk.

“I didn’t kill him, Shailaja. It wasn’t callousness or lack of grief that made me think of the donation at that time. It was because he had dinned it into me. Over and over and over again. I loved my husband. I still do. Many women may say that they love and respect their husband. I did love and respect my husband. In the 9 years of our marriage, I can count three, maybe four occasions when I wanted to walk out. None of them because he ill-treated me. All of them because he could be exasperating at times in his goodness. I never imagined someone like him could survive in a world as cynical and greedy as ours. But he proved it could be done.”

“I wasn’t saying you did…”

“You were and I don’t blame you. In fact, I have been waiting for you to question me on it. If you hadn’t, I wouldn’t believe you were doing your job.”

After Tanya had left, Shailaja went around the back of the police station to a little garden one of the hawaldar’s had planted with her extra-large cup of coffee and smoked in silence.

“Who killed you Rajesh? And why?”

She took out her mobile phone and dialled the state coroner.

“Anajan, I need the list of people who got Rajesh Velleti’s organs.”

“No can do darling. Confidential information.”

“This is a murder investigation.”

“Still can’t do. You need a court order for that.”

“Fuck!”

“I never thought you’d ask. When and where?”

“One of these days, sleazeball, I am going to put you in for sexual harassment.”

“More likely the other way around. Why don’t you stop sexually harassing me?”

“Bye darling.”

“Bye”

Next she dialled the public prosecutor, Shalini Reddy.

“Look who’s calling”, came the chirpy voice on the other end. They had been classmates in school and went back a long way.

“Your friendly neighbourhood policeman”, she replied.

“Can it. They never made that model.”

“Right. Okay, I need a court order. I am investigating a case where the murder victim’s organs were donated. I need a list of the beneficiaries.”

“Oo-la-la! You don’t ask for easy things, do you?”

“Why do I need you for easy things?”

“Coffee?”

“5. Minerva?”

“I’ll be there.”

Minerva was an institution in Hyderabad. Generations of Hyderabadi’s frequented it for good south Indian dishes. For Shalini and Shailaja, it was something that started in college. When they wanted some time to themselves, they escaped to Minerva.

“So, what makes you want such well-protected information?” Shalini asked after the usual greetings and catching up.

“A particularly perplexing case”, Shailaja started. “A 35-year-old male was murdered three months ago in City Center.”

“Yes, I heard about that one. Didn’t know it was your case.”

“Whose table do you think all the shit ends up at?  Anyways, they were a nice, young couple. Husband worked with an IT company as a manager. Wife is a homemaker. Two kids – 7 and 5. The family was out for the evening. As they roamed about the mall, a man rushed at Rajesh, stabbed him twice in the back and as he fell, the man slit his throat. The assailant was wearing oversized sunglasses and a baseball hat, so the CCTV pictures are useless. Rajesh and Tanya seem to be universally liked, no real enemies. Every way I turn, there seems to be a surprising lack of motive.”

Shailaja stopped talking as the waiter served them their coffee. After the waited moved away, she resumed.

“The only thing that stands out in this case is that the wife remembered that Rajesh had donated his organs as she waited outside the autopsy room. So six lives were saved because of that. It struck me as odd that a wife in that situation remembered that he was a donor. But it turns out Rajesh often discussed the donation. I checked with his parents and they confirmed that. It was also confirmed by his friends.”

“So no motive at all”, Shalini observed.

“Smart girl. Do you want my job?”

“Oh shuddup! So why the interest in list of recipients?”

“For completeness. I believe this will go on the backburner by tomorrow. No political or media pressure on this, so nothing to keep it going.”

“Let me see what I can do”, she said.

It took Shalini two days to get her the list, by when she had already wrapped the case notes in a brown file and tied the knot.

She took out the report from its cover and read it.

The following are the recipients of organs from Rajesh Velleti, died 14 January 2012.

  1. Tariq Rashid, eyes
  2. Brig. Mohan Reddy, eyes
  3. Salma Ahmed, kidney
  4. Rohan Reddy, kidney
  5. Sharmila Agarwal, heart
  6. Nidhi Rajan, pancreas

Case histories of each of the recipients are attached as annexures to this list.

For further queries, contact Dr. Kailash Prasad, Chief Medical Officer, Gandhi Hospital.

Signed

Shalini Reddy

Public Coroner

Shailaja took out each of the case histories and began to read them. Most of them made very little sense to her. So she decided to take the easy way out and contact each of the doctors for case summaries.

She pulled out her Windows Phone and created a new note.

Tariq Rashid, Dr. Laxmi Prasad

Brig. Mohan Reddy, Dr. Sanjana Reddy

Salma Ahmed, Dr. Deepak Nair

Rohan Reddy, Dr. Deepak Nair

Sharmila Agarwal, Dr. Vandana Farhan

Nidhi Rajan, Dr. Matthew Chacko

The stories from each of the doctors were almost similar is desperation. The supply-demand ratio for organs in the country was the worst in the world. This often meant long, hopeless waits for patients and their families.

“People like Rajesh are extremely rare in our country”, Dr. Deepak Nair told him. “Religious beliefs, coupled with the lack of awareness about organ donation mean that most people are either reluctant to donate or don’t know how to go about donating. In countries like Spain, organ donation is presumed unless specifically opted out of. Maybe in a country like ours where it is difficult to actually get registered as a donor, we should follow a system like that. So anybody who really feels strongly about donation can take the trouble to opt out because the reverse is sadder. Many people who want to donate don’t know how to go about it or are defeated by a system that is not transparent.”

“Salma is a good example of the trauma a family goes through when a loved one is waiting for a donor. She has been living on dialysis for three years now. She was reaching the point when we would have to give up on her. The only hope was to find a donor and find one quickly.”

“Last month, her husband had finally found a donor. Since the donor was not related to the patient, the case had to be reviewed by the organ donation board, which consists of senior doctors and management. This is done to discourage organ trade. The family needs to prove that no financial transaction has taken place to enable to the organ donation. This case was refused because the donor was a poor share-cropper who had huge debts and no prior connection to the family.”

“So the family was paying someone for a kidney.”

“Well, we are not an investigating agency and can’t say that for sure. Suffice to say that we did not find sufficient reason to believe that the donor was doing it out of altruistic intentions”, he replied with a smile.

“In fact, the Ahmeds’ is a tragic story. Ahmed is madly in love with Salma. I have seen him deteriorate in front of me, as his wife’s condition deteriorated. To look at them, you would not be able to say which of them was the patient. Ahmed had a fantastic job which he lost because his work became erratic since he was constantly by his wife’s side. Recently he took up a job with the NGO called Donate Life to track donors, so he could keep an eye on deaths of donors in the city and hope that one of them was a match.”

Suddenly, Shailaja felt the familiar tingling when a case had miraculously opened up.

“How can I get in touch with Ahmed?” she asked casually.

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